FLCC’s ‘Black Death’ course offers pandemic perspective

Man weariong a suit, standing in the grass
FLCC History Prof. Robert Brown is shown in Yorkshire, England, in 2009 while working on an exhumation project to research the Spanish flu. He is standing near the grave of one of its victims, Sir Mark Sykes. Brown took part a PBS documentary titled “Secrets of the Dead” while he was a research associate at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, part of the University College London.

History Professor Robert Brown has taught the same course at Finger Lakes Community College for the past several years, but never has it been so relevant.

Called “The Black Death and Beyond: How Disease Has Changed History,” the course examines the evolutionary struggle between man and microbe and the myriad ways disease has shaped history.

“It offers useful and timely insight for navigating the challenges of COVID by presenting a host of historical scenarios in which the human population was unexpectedly assailed by an unknown or little understood pathogen,” said Brown, who resides in Victor.

The class will be offered again in the spring semester, which begins Jan. 25.

Brown earned his doctorate in history at Syracuse University. One of his main research interests – and a focus of the Black Death course – is the flu pandemic of 1918 that claimed an estimated 60 million lives. He has been featured in articles and television documentaries, including the PBS’s, “Secrets of the Dead: Killer Flu.” “While H1N1 influenza and COVID-19 have some characteristics in common, they are light years apart in terms of scope, magnitude and mortality,” said Brown. “This coronavirus has a long way to go to surpass, or even rival, its 1918 predecessor.”

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 10 percent of the world’s population may have been infected by COVID-19. H1N1 may have infected as much as one third of the human race.  While roughly 1.4 million people have lost their lives from COVID, the death toll from the 1918-19 virus was between 50 and 70 million, which Brown said is the population equivalent of “at least” 200 million today.

The 1918 outbreak was worsened by World War I, which brought overcrowding, mass movement, widespread food insecurity and other complications, Brown said. The cause of the outbreak remained unknown to the generation that endured it and efforts to produce an effective vaccine proved futile.

“Even the now-ubiquitous face mask was comparatively scarce, or ineffective, in 1918-19,” Brown said. “Face shields and other personal protective equipment were similarly non-existent or difficult to obtain a century ago, especially during wartime.”

“Now, we possess other pandemic-fighting assets that our early 20th century counterparts lacked, like antibiotics to deal with secondary bacterial infections, steroids and ventilators, antiviral drugs, antibody therapy and an eventual vaccine,” he added.

There is also social distancing and the ability to shut down cultural events and large sections of the economy – all “impossible during World War I,” he said.

What’s more: The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control are able track the progress of an outbreak and coordinate global efforts to defeat it.

In recent months, Brown said he has heard from several who took his “Black Death” course and are grateful for the perspective it has provided. His former students include faculty colleagues, medical professionals and retirees.

“For me, one of the positive consequences of COVID has been the many welcome opportunities to reconnect with former students who have taken this course and are seeing links between past outbreaks and the current situation,” he said.

Brown’s class is open to matriculated students, meaning those who are seeking a degree or certificate, and members of the community. The application for new students to apply to FLCC for spring semester is Jan. 15, but community members can register for individual classes without applying. The registration deadline for those not seeking a degree is Jan. 22; however, a course may fill up before the deadline.

Registration is also underway for the College’s winter session, which begins Dec. 28. Students attending other colleges can take core courses and transfer the credits back to their home institutions. Course schedules are available in the top right corner of the homepage at flcc.edu.

For more information, call the FLCC One Stop Center at (585) 785-1000.

Author: Lenore Friend

Lenore Friend is the community affairs director at FLCC and the college's liaison with Finger Lakes TV. Contact her at (585) 785-1623 or Lenore.Friend@flcc.edu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *